An internationally renowned rock star and a jazz-folk chanteuse will join the San Luis Obispo Symphony on stage this weekend in a in a concert roughly two decades in the planning.
The program, emceed by KSBY daytime anchor Dan Shadwell, includes such classic Yes songs as “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround,” as well as Beatles favorites “Blackbird” and “A Day in the Life.”
“I’ve always thought it’d be wonderful to sing with the orchestra,” Anderson said, praising the San Luis Obispo Symphony as “one of the finest orchestras in North America.” “It’s wonderful to hear these people playing around you. It’s like you’re surrounded by this energy.”
Anderson who formed the progressive rock band Yes with bassist Chris Squire in 1968, grew up listening to classical music by the likes of Edward Elgar, Igor Stravinsky and Ralph Vaughan Williams on the BBC.
“You just wondered ‘How do people create that kind of music?’ ” the Englishman recalled.
Years later, Anderson decided to incorporate some of the symphonic sounds he’d heard on the radio into modern rock ’n’ roll. Yes’s second album, 1970’s “Time and a Word,” was its first to feature a live studio orchestra.
The 1993 album “Symphonic Music of Yes,” featuring orchestral versions of Yes songs arranged by Jethro Tull’s Dee Palmer, found Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Bill Bruford performing alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Community Gospel Choir. Then, in 2001, Yes joined forces with a 60-piece orchestra for the album “Magnification.”
“That was the joy of working with Yes. They’re very talented musicians (so their music) translates very well to orchestra,” said Anderson, who parted ways with the band in 2008.
San Luis Obispo Symphony Music Director Michael Nowak, a self-avowed Yes fan, said he’s wanted to collaborate with Anderson since the prog rocker moved to Arroyo Grande around 1995.
However, Nowak added, Anderson’s busy schedule prevented him from teaming up with the symphony until now — as did a shortage of musical scores of Anderson’s songs arranged for orchestra.
Fortunately, Nowak, who currently conducts the orchestra for ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” was able to enlist six of his Hollywood friends to serve as orchestrators.
“The thing that I find startlingly good is how complicated this music really is. It’s not two or three chords” like many rock songs, Nowak said.
“(Anderson) has a vast knowledge of classical music. It’s almost like he understands it from the composer’s brain,” he added, explaining that Anderson’s gift is particularly impressive considering the fact that he doesn’t read music. “How he can do a three-hour concert from memory … it’s completely amazing.”
Swearingen, Anderson’s duet partner for the Pops concert, said she’s enjoyed the opportunity to delve into his music, including lesser-known tunes such as “Prayer Song” and “State of Independence.”
“I’m just being inspired by the freedom in his writing,” she said, as well as its rhythmic nature. “I think I gravitate toward that as a musician naturally.”
The San Luis Obispo resident, who teaches music at Cuesta College, first performed at Pops by the Sea in 2006. She’s also sung with the symphony as part of the Apex for Kids Family Concert series.
Swearingen compared the sensation of performing with a symphony orchestra to singing with a big band.
“It’s a similar feeling of ‘Wow, this is so big,’” she said. “So many people come together to make this music happen that you kind of get on a wave and ride it. … The times I’ve gotten to do that have been deeply satisfying.”
Swearingen said she, her sister Britta and Timothy Metcalf will serve as Anderson’s backup singers for part of the concert. They’ll be joined by a rock combo consisting of guitarist Jeff Miley, keyboardist Kristian Ducharme, bassist Ken Hustad and drummer John Astaire.
In addition, the symphony will perform a few numbers solo, including Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” and Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In keeping with tradition, John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” will be conducted by the winner of the Maestro’s Baton Auction.
“The exciting thing for me is when you bring outstanding talents together and see what comes from that,” Nowak said. “It’s really been a dream for me to have this happen.”
If you go
Pops by the Sea
4 p.m. Sunday, gates open at 2:30 p.m.
Avila Beach Golf Resort, 6464 Ana Bay Rd, Avila Beach
$15 to $20, $5 children 12 and under
543-3533 or www.slosymphony.org